Libya with love

As we walked across Martyr’s Square the first time, as we looked for a hotel, I said something about how Libya had better be the epitome of kickass to justify the hassle we’d had to get here. Gerard said I was just making it easy for me to be disappointed. He was wrong. Libya is worth everything we put into getting here: the money, the week queuing outside the Libyan consulate in Alex, the flights up and down the Med, the lot.

 

Tripoli is an easy city to like, with its sea front and proper commercial ships overlooked by the coastal that forms the corner of the tumble down old city. It cleverly manages to combine feeling safer than Tunis with a bit of revolutionary excitement. Everything that could possibly have been painted with the red, black and green of the new flag has been, and there was a small protest in the square when we arrived. By the time we’d dumped our bags it had shrunk, but had some information signs that we checked out. The demonstrators explained they objected to a clause in the current draft of what will one day be a constitution allowing anyone who’d defected by the 20th of March, the day after Gaddafi attacked Benghazi, to hold office. They were all really friendly, interesting and pleased to see us. Unlike the people we talked to in Egypt and Tunisia they, like everyone else in Tripoli, all said the revolution had changed everything and were confident that things would improve dramatically in the coming years. Which is not to say; people aren’t concerned about the future. Everyone says Gaddafi neglected education, and worry about what that will do to the country. People say the Youth have no respect, and a Sufi mystic said the Salafis are bigots with too much power and confidence and not enough knowledge of Islam. But everyone is confident that whatever happens, it’ll be better than Gaddafi. The city feels like its celebrating, and has got out its biros to cross his (gormless) face of the one dinar note, and scratched Jamhariya, his name for Libya’s government, off the car licence plates. The odd burst of celebratory gun fire, fireworks and, worst of all, the sticks that go bang which kids throw all over the place has almost given me post traumatic stress, and I wasn’t there during the war, but Tripoli seems happy. No one, not even the people with touristy shops in the old city, tries to sell us anything. If the national museum wasn’t still dismantling the galleries about Gaddafi and cataloguing what went missing during the war the city would be practically perfect.

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Tunisia – not smelling of Jasmin

There is nothing like being proved right about something to make you like it. In Tunis, Sousse, Kairoun and Sfax the cities provided a backdrop to our disscussions about how they felt like like they were waiting for something. Consequently when on Friday our louage, as Tunisia calls the serveece, was stopped by a neat line of rocks across the road outside Metlouie we were not surprised at all. Protesters milling around, stopping traffic into the mining town in Gafsa governorate seemed to explain the atmosphere, rather than confusing us.

Tunisians are pretty keen to chat, and none of the people we talked to thought the revolution had changed anything. In Egypt we met people who were inspired by the revolution and others who were disillusioned with it, people who were determined to create a country worthy of its martyrs and people who thought the revolutionaries had already lost. In Tunisia only a group of students Gerard met thought anything had even started to change. The students from Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution started, who invited us to stay with them, were completely uninterested in politics.

We talked about all this as we waited on the road for a couple of hours, watching the police watch the townsfolk watch us before our driver decided to take us over a desert track. My boyfriend checked the news for us and read it to us over the phone. Like much of the south Gasfa province had been on strike the day before.

Tunisians have told us a lot (blue repels mosquitoes, the yellow doors in Tunis are on houses that belonged to money loving Jews) and we might now be able to explain the weird atmosphere in Tunisia, but we will never understand Tunisians obsession with complicated change manoeuvres. They have way more small denomination coins than Egypt, but instead of handing them over they will go to any lengths (while reckoning in thousands of milliems, in French) to work out a way of giving one a note. If you buy something for, say, eight dinar they’d definitely prefer to take 22 and give you a ten dinar note than accept a ten and give you two as change. Nor will we ever understand why they go to bed so early – we arrived in Tripoli, Libya on Wednesday and, since leaving the airport, have loved everything.

 

Drunk and Disturbing Me

We’re still in Tunisia, and I don’t really know what I think about it. Tunisians and I need to work really hard to understand each other’s Arabic, and they can’t believe it wouldn’t just be easier to talk French. The Tunisian old cities are similar enough to Damascus to remind me how much I miss Sham. It’s worse than being homesick because the Damascus I miss has been shot to shit, the people I shared it with scattered and scarred by the war. My relationship with Sham is in its Sinead O’Connor phase; obviously it’s over but Nothing Compares To You, Damascus. Our break up is still too recent for me to want to be impartial; I just wanna be in pre-war Syria.

So clearly I’m not fair to Tunisia. It’s probably amazing really. I’m swinging from loving the rolling hills of Cap Bon, backed the improbably blue Med and the medina’s narrow alleys, with doors and windows picked out in blues as unlikely as the sea, and thinking about Syria. But I don’t think it’s only that my second country has dumped me. Too many Tunisians just seem unloved, uncared for. So far only one person to come up to us after dark hasn’t reeked of beer. My Syrian friends drank, some of them allot, often cheep vodka outside, but it seems Tunisia’s public drunkenness is of a different breed. My friends enjoyed getting pissed. Simple as that. Both Syria and Egypt had an underclass for whom survival was a struggle, but somehow they didn’t seem as desolate as their Tunisian counterparts. I can’t think of a Syrian equivalent of the man who showed me and Gerard round a mosque today and smelt of alcohol, madness and neglect. Despite living on the edge of a refugee camp in an Iraqi suburb I saw one person in Syria combine hopelessness and booze. After two years it is literally shocking to see the pairing again. I discussed it with Gerard a, who made thinking noises. The boys not being as surprised as me (although they were pretty surprised by the toothless beggar who tried to kiss me at 10am) makes me wonder about Britain.

We’re in Kairoun at the moment which claims to be the fourth holiest place in the Islamic world. They’re wrong, Damascus’ Umayyad mosque is, but it’s still a relaxed, residential old city. I like it, particularly the well that’s linked to one in Mecca. A bunch of guys with a banging sound system have taken over the piazza between our hotel and the walls of the old city. They’re playing a catchy song about Jihad, draped everything with posters about spreading the revolution and are busy fund raising for Gaza. They’re having a great time. Tunisia is as changeable as my feelings.

 

Tunisia Map

Smashed heads and Blackouts.

Musy, an Iraqi friend, is homesick. We don’t really know what to do to cheer him up, we tried wearing fake moustaches, but it only worked temporarily. We think it’s all the killing that’s making him miss Bagdad, but it might have been footage from the Arab league. He’s spending an unhealthy amount of time curled up on the sofa in front of Ash Shaksia, an Iraqi TV station, listening to his native dialect.

‘What are you watching, Musy?’

‘Umm, in Iraq you only get electricity for a maximum of 12 hours a day. All the neighbourhoods have massive generators, that can supply you with electricity when the government electricity’s off, but its expensive, maybe 40$ a month. They are poor people, and the channel is asking them stupid questions. The winner gets 24hr a day electricity for 3 months.’

‘Kinda like who wants to be a millionaire, but for electricity?’

‘Yeah. The private electricity used to be really, crazily expensive, but now the government won’t let them charge more than a certain price and sells them cheap petrol.’

We watch together in silence.

‘You know, Baghdadi is incomprehensible.’

‘Yep. Oh, that is a hard question. Who started wearing wristwatches first, the British, Italians or the French?’

Ash Shaksia broadcasts other programs that are grotesquely distorted by Iraq’s social reality. They take home makeovers a bit more seriously, instead of varnishing the floorboards they knock down small, illegally and dangerously built houses belonging to poor people and replace them with safer, more structurally sound buildings. They don’t do a weight loss show, but they do go round poor neighbourhoods asking how much people weigh. If the contestant knows their weight, within five kilograms either way, they get the same amount of dollars. Instead of ‘I slept with my wife’s brother,’ shows they use DNA testing to try and find people lost in the invasion or under Saddam. Musy says the soaps are really good, but he has shitty taste in movies. We often watch their news broadcasts.

Musy is also a bit of a hero at the moment. Tuesday was the 5 month anniversary of the protest at the private universities. The guy who organised the one at Musies’ has been missing ever since, and on Tuesday the anti students stood in silence to honour him. The 10 percent of students that support the regime apparently started screaming ‘Allah, Syria and Bashar.’ The protesters started chanting ‘freedom’ and the pros shut the doors, phoned the Shabiha and attacked. As 40 percent of the students want change violence wasn’t going to get Assad’s supporters very far and the university security could handle things. Until the Shabiha arrived. According to Musy administration and security both assured the Shabiha they had everything under control, but the Shabiha don’t negotiate. Some pro students let them in, and they indiscriminately lashed out at people with clubs and rifle-butts.

Musy ended up at our house with blood all over his shirt; if it was from a nosebleed then he’s an elephant. His eyes had the glazed look I associate with too much exercise. We fed him tea and beer and he told us what happened. After the Shabiha started ‘smashing’ people as many anti students as possible rushed to the busses that take the students to the university, miles out of town on the Dera highway. Inside the building their was blood everywhere, Musy carried people who’d fainted from the gore and watching people being smashed out to the clinic as well as injured students. Happily the universities impressive facilities include a good clinic, only the most seriously injured protesters needed ambulances. Pro students started directing the violence, telling the Shabiha which of their class mates were anti, and the Shabiha really beat them. ‘How did it end?’ I asked.’

‘The beasts arrested all the antis they could get. They weren’t soldiers, they were animals. They were enjoying it, the smashing. They really hated the anti students. I’m an Iraqi, I’ve seen violence, I’ve seen al-Qaeda, I’ve had to shoot someone, but I’ve never seen anything like that, that much hatred. They weren’t people. They were beasts.’

Bombs

The revolution turned one on Thursday. We spent it like we spend our Fridays, sitting around flicking through the news and eating a never ending breakfast, but I remember where I was on the 15th of March last year.

 

It must have been about 4 am that the Fixer and a friend of his phoned me from the alley underneath my old city house. While you could argue that the Fixer had drunk enough you wouldn’t have convinced him, he knew I had a bottle of wine in my room and he wanted to help me drink it. I dropped my keys out the window and he let himself, his crisps and his friend in. His friend, a poet, an artist and an academic with an unfortunate haircut I’d met a few times and got on well with, was pretty embarrassed when he realised he’d got a women out of bed. But as the Fixer said, the was no point him going home now I’d been woken up, I assured Haircut that I knew the Fixer was responsible and we settled down for a surprisingly civilized night. We talked about Haircut’s relationship with a British woman and being Western or Westernised in Syria, about drinking beer in pavement cafés and electricity in Jermaana. We rubbished Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ but Libya was in an inspiring phase, and we agreed to go to the poetry night at Al Fardous every week. I remember being happy.

 

When he woke up Haircut phoned the Fixer. He said the government had shot his cousin and four other men in Durra. Some kids had been arrested for writing slogans on a wall and no one knew what was happening to them. Haircut, who hated corruption and loved Syria, was going home.

 

A year on and I don’t know where Haircut is. He returned to Damascus in the summer, but when the Fixer tried to restart their friendship where they’d left it Haircut said he didn’t know the Fixer, or anyone of his name or nationality. I haven’t seen him at any poetry nights recently.

 

The 15th was also teacher’s day, but apparently it was easier for teachers and students alike to attend demos if the public holiday was shifted to the following week. The rallies dominated Arabic language news across the spectrum. Al Jazeera’s ‘happenings of the revolution’ the BBC’s Greek potato revolution and the Assad emails didn’t cheer us up. Helicopters took to the sky, but the streets were pretty empty. A year on and the government could still control the country.

 

The next day Sabina were out in force on the streets of Mohajareen, but Syria was on fire. It was just as depressing, but in a different way. We all agreed the revolution seemed more intense in its second year.

None of changed our minds this morning, when we were woken by a loud noise. We watch a lot of news and all reacted, alone, in the same way. We first thought it was an explosion, then remembered it was snowing when we went to bed and wondered if it could be thunder, before thinking maybe we’d dreamed it. Then there was a second explosion that blew our doubts up along with Bramkea. Thunder doesn’t rattle houses.

 

We eventually kicked our guests for the night off the sofa and assembled in front of the TV. Our Iraqi flatmate, who didn’t wake up, was unimpressed by Syria’s reaction – what’s the point of cancelling class after a bomb? We were rather taken aback by his explanation of bullet trajectories, the mathematical impossibility of being shot in my room or the kitchen and how we can get between them. Apparently if you grow up in Baghdad working out this stuff is instinctive. We’re all sad that Syrians are developing these skills.

 

My friends and family need to know that the bombs were both a long way from my house, we’re on the slopes of the mountain above the school so it’s not surprising that we could hear the explosions. Neither were anywhere I go and like most Shammies I’m still at home at 7.30. Today was a day of heightened awareness, this bombing wasn’t random. It coincided with the arrival of another UN delegation. I am always evaluating whether its time to leave. It remains to be seen weather the second year of rebellion marks a new phase of the revolution.

Moving

All those war stories, holocaust stories, stories about humans ability to adapt, to survive. The ones that say ‘a remarkable tale of the indomitable human spirit in terrible circumstances,’ on the back, A Child Called It, the ‘my life as a junky genre’. They don’t really question whether people should manage to live through horrendous times. I’m impressed by Damascus’ ability to man up, keep calm and carry on, but I’m horrified by it as well.

If you can think of a way of coping with the disintegration of your country I can guarantee their is a Shammie practising it. Homs has pushed what’s happening in Damascus out of the headlines, but something definitely is. The question of course is what. Concrete barriers entirely bar the exits from the ring road to the rebellious eastern suburbs, stationary trucks fill Jermaanas high street. Rumours and videos are coming out of Zabadani, Duma, Harista, everywhere and helicopters are becoming commoner.

Still, people get on with life. People who weren’t put off having a good time by Derra haven’t been put off by Homs. The bombings have shaken everybody, they’ve added an unwelcome element of random death. But while you don’t see people on the streets before 2PM on Fridays, afterwards the good times roll. Like us everyone spends the morning channel surfing, with a satellite dish you can have back to back Syria coverage, flicking from news to propaganda and from Arabic to English and back. We discus theories and rumours over the news we’ve carefully lined up. My Iraqi friends swear they know about bombs, and Syrias aren’t big enough for the reported death toll. Someone’s cousin in the mukhaberat said that Aleppo would have 8 bombings. So and so describes the unusual lack of street life outside the first building to be bombed in Damascus the night before it was attacked. In Syria buildings dedicated to maintaining the police state are prominent, and defended by a few conscripts with AKs. They’re designed to intimidate but if they wanted to the opposition could easily get close enough to blow them up. We argue until their is more Homs footage, and then their is nothing to say.

By 3 its life as usual. Anything that’ll be blown up that day has been and cafés house women saying the first person to mention politics pays. families go out to eat. Bars fill up. I’m impressed by the way Damascus carries on, but I’m appalled by the city’s myopia and seeming indifference as well. While half my friends now say ‘gunna do a Russia,’ for ‘no,’ or ‘I’m not joining in,’ and complain they ‘feel like Homs,’ in the morning the other half have long-standing ideological objections to enjoying themselves. The dark humour is more fun than going out for a few bears with people who glare at other customers and complain that they’re having fun. Asceticism wont improve anything. None the less it feels better, going out does seem immoral. It is hard not to despise the people who seem unaware theirs a war on.

On the other hand the life as normal crew are spending cash and keeping people employed. The people who think this is a time of suffering are bulk buying, inevitably pushing prices up and creating shortages. The petrol shortage is the most disheartening. Petrol is subsidised by the government and theoretically the price is fixed at 220L a litre. People are paying a thousand up front. A week or two later when the depot has supplies they deliver whats been paid for, and the customers stockpile it. The lines outside petrol stations are unbelievable, the cost of everything is rising. The corruption is so depressing, it takes more than a change of government to change that kind of mentality. The revolution started with ‘the people calling for the overthrow of corruption,’ but how can you stop it?

                                                               …

Their is a Syrian version of the Pythons Yorkshiremen sketch doing the rounds. Apparently its a true story from the campus of one of the private universities. A bunch of stoners in their final year are hanging out, complaining about the situation and the power cuts. One winges he has to do all his studying in cafes powered by generators. His companions are not impressed, and his friend moans about studying by candle light. ‘Candle light,’ the third student exclaims. ‘Cant afford candles, do my studying in middle of t’ road I do. Use the light from t’ restaurants.’

”Dudes. Whats wrong with sunlight?’ A passing class mate asks. ‘You guys need to get up earlier.’

This is no longer my life. As much as I enjoyed living in Jermaana my low income friendship groups disintegrating along with Syria. The focus of my life has shifted west and consequently I’ve moved in with some friends in prosperous, laid back Afif (or ‘unsullied’). Its just down the road from the Burtons’ and Lady Jane Digby’s old hangout in Sahlahya (‘righteous’). Despite crawling in mukhaberat (leather coats and pistols), security (overcoats and AKs) and traffic police (motorbikes and jack boots) its far more attractive than Jermaana. The rich My new flats biggest draw is location, and I’m not talking views, architectural charm and a tourist departments dream of a vegetable souk. Its just up the mountain from Bashar and shares a power cable with him. Electricity 24 hrs a day!

Damascus and Me

As passionate as mine and Damascus’ love affair is, if she was a man I’d leave her. She’s just not very nice to me.

My landlord took advantage of my brief trip home to steal my furniture and change my locks. I’m reconciled to camping in my new flat, but I want Decembers rent, which I paid in advance, back. Owning white goods is the only ‘proper adult’ thing I’ve ever managed, I felt if put ‘own a fridge,’ on my CV it would prove that I’m not just a bum. Alas, I no longer have this tenuous claim to maturity.

My now ex landlord sits smoking, laughs at me, ‘teaches’ me new swearwords and then tells me lies. He maintains that a friend told him I’d left Syria, so of course he could rent my, now furnished, flat out to someone else. When I rocked up from Jordan too tiered to be angry, with hardly any Syrian money, he let me crash in a flat that has a family living in it, although they weren’t around. He thinks that after such munificent behaviour I cant make any claim on him, I think it confirmed he’s got a borderline criminal take on contract theory.

After an uneasy night waiting for Little Bear to come home and do his ‘someone’s been sleeping in my bed, and she still is’ act, I went off to the ALC to collect my pay checks. My colleagues were as cheerful as I was; the Americans had shut the place down and we’d all been made redundant.

This was the prelude to a series of sofa surfing adventures, the highlight of which was staying with a friends family. The husband is rich enough to set up a second home, complete with an additional wife. The first wife doesn’t like the idea and is attempting to up the family expenditure by breaking the furniture so it has to be replaced. Her sister in law, my friend, thinks this is typical Syrian jealousy, but I think her objections are fair enough and we spent an enjoyable morning chipping the varnish of a wardrobe that’s so hideous it has to be expensive.

My landlord has erected an ingenious paper fence between him and any sort of responsibility. The flat was built even more illegally than usual, so my contract was for a legal, but non-existent, house (troublesome foreigners such as myself are always running round waving our bits of paper at immigration officials, inconsiderately causing problems for slum landlords). The last person with a contract for my flat is the very Syrian who ‘stole my stuff and said I’d left.’ We’re at a bit of an impasse which the landlord failed to break by offering my friend money to say it was all his fault.

The friend saved most of my stuff, having had a call from the landlord demanding money, so I’ve still got my clothes and books; it could have been worse. None the less Damascus, what have I done to deserve your displeasure?

Damascus doesn’t treat me as well as I expect men to, but she gives me just enough to keep me interested. How can I dump the alleyways of the Old City when she’s lit by candles and I half expect to walk into one of The Thousand and One Nights? Yes, during the six hours a day she withholds electricity its too cold to manipulate a pen, but the air is clear enough to see the necklace of mountains that form a crescent moon around her. Covered in snow, they look like clouds that have become too solid to float and have sunk to earth as hills.

We seek refuge from the cold in cafés and discuss my friends unusual exam season problem. Men have two years in the army after education, and if an added disincentive for doing it now were needed conscripts stopped being released after serving their time in about April. My friends are trying to fail enough exams to fail the year, but not so many that their kicked out of uni. They reckon that the countries got several years of civil war ahead of it and I don’t see how they can spend the next 15 years as undergraduates, but then I don’t see what else they can do either.

Damascus, you are cruel to your lovers.